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Modern art on the Council Tax

Mark_wallace Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance on the vanity of councillors becoming art collectors at the Council Taxpayers expense.

With a recession biting, putting greater pressure on public services and hitting household budgets hard, it is more important than ever that councils cut out all unnecessary and frivolous spending.

The Editor of this blog raised one example of potential savings earlier in the week, proposing – rightly - the abolition of political advisor posts in local government. Having elected councillors to decide the policies of the council and provided officers to carry out their instructions, people are strongly opposed to such duplication which smacks of political parties taking advantage of taxpayers’ generosity. Advisers, though, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Another, far more spurious, area of spending which regularly outrages the public but keeps catching the eye of councillors is public art. Whilst most people have nothing against the concept of art in public places, they do wonder why it is so often councils that feel it is their responsibility to commission it at the expense of local taxpayers.

Take, for example, Poole Council, which was reported this week to be considering spending £50,000 on a 4 foot tall sculpture in the shape of a stack of giant plates. Poole’s taxpayers would much rather that money was used to help sort out the council’s struggling finances. Failing that, if the council don’t need the money then it should be given back to people, not spent on sculptures.

In many ways this is a classic example of the divide between the people and the political class. To councillors it is often attractive to think you can leave a physical, visible mark on the area you represent, particularly when the benefits of good education, care and other services feel less tangible. Why not spend a bit of money on a physical legacy of your political existence?

Well, there are three reasons why not. First, it is not councillors’ money to spend on frivolities and personal vanity projects, it is the people’s and it should be spent carefully on essential services. Particularly with the country in the grip of a recession, it is indefensible to splash cash on white elephants while local residents can’t afford to pay their household bills.

Second, these projects more often than not lack popularity or mandate. Which council ever stood for election on the declared intention of spending tens of thousands of pounds on sculptures? As a council candidate, if you feel something is unacceptable to tell people about in your manifesto or on your leaflets it should be a good sign that it isn’t right just to force it through once you’re elected.

Third, there is a huge amount of duplication going on already. We have arts bodies, quangos, lottery projects, tourist boards, chambers of commerce, private companies and all sorts of other creatures who are actively commissioning and funding public art projects. There is simply no need for councils – and council taxpayers – to pitch in, too.

Councils should have learned by now that these purchases often annoy people and gather bad press, but each year several fall into the trap of forcing local taxpayers to fund councillors’ artistic tastes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are angry that whilst their council tax bills rise and services struggle, their money is being spent on frills that they never asked for. When most families can’t afford to buy art that they like for their own homes, councils have a responsibility to stop buying it on their behalf and making them pick up the tab.

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